For the most part, you could say that Mizzou's spring practice sessions played out about as expected. The Tigers struggled at wide receiver (and, therefore, quarterback), and we expected no less given the youth (and injuries) at the position. Meanwhile, the defense began to experiment with slightly different, aggressive schemes under new coordinator Barry Odom. The ends, my other primary concern heading into spring ball, looked pretty awesome by most accounts.
There was one unexpected plot twist, however: massive experimentation on the offensive line.
We knew there would be competition at right tackle, where youngsters Clay Rhodes and Nate Crawford, JUCO transfer Malike Cuellar, and others would likely battle for the one position left open by a departed starter. (Last year's right tackle, Taylor Chappel, originally moved to LT to replace Mitch Morse.) And when Connor McGovern got hurt late in the spring, it opened the door for a bit more competition. But it sounds like there was going to be some shuffling around regardless of McGovern's injury.
"When Connor went down, he was going to go to tackle that next week," Ricker said. "He was going to play all left tackle. When he didn’t come back, then it was kind of a revolving door there to see what some of these guys can do."
On Saturday, Nate Crawford started with the first string at right tackle, and junior college transfer Malik Cuellar started at left tackle. Mitch Hall started at right guard next to Boehm, and Taylor Chappell started at left guard. Brad McNulty split time with Chappell at left guard on the first string, and Clay Rhodes shared first-string time with Crawford.
For now, Ricker has shuffled four players at the tackle spots: junior college transfer Malik Cuellar has gotten the first-team work on the left side, while Nate Crawford and Clay Rhodes have split time on the right side. Taylor Chappell, a starter at right tackle in 10 games last year, has practiced at both guard and tackle this spring.
Cuellar, a nimble 6-5, 300-pound transfer from City College of San Francisco, has climbed from third-team status to potential starter in three weeks.
Cuellar, who joined the team in January, "is starting to understand," Boehm said. "It’s kind of tough for a juco kid, especially when you get taught a technique for so long and then he comes here and we’re trying to rearrange it for him and trying to teach him our way. He’s a fast learner. … He wants it just as bad as anyone out there."
Here are some quotes from Ricker after the spring game:
"We got stopped on the fourth-down there with Sam Bailey (at No. 2-LT) on Charles Harris. I just wanted to get his nose bloodied a little bit, because he will be a good player. He's just young. I mean, he's 270 pounds."
".. (Alec) Abeln's come along, I think he could play some guard for us, too."
"I'm going to tell Malik (Cuellar) this summer, hey, make sure you get some guard reps at right and left. If he's a top five (offensive lineman), that's what I want."
Missouri O-line coach AJ Ricker says Connor McGovern will play LT when he comes back from injury. Malik Cuellar could play some guard— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) April 18, 2015
Ricker says Rhodes, Crawford and incoming juco transfer Tyler Howell will compete for the RT job this summer— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) April 18, 2015
Spring is a perfect time for experimentation, but reacting to it is an optimist-vs.-pessimist exercise. Was this shuffling based on a happy "We've got a lot of options, and we're trying to figure out the best one" premise, or, since McGovern has long been better on the interior (great) than the exterior (fine), is this a sign that Ricker and company are not particularly optimistic about the options at tackle? You can see whatever you want to see here.
Fullback U: Playing McGovern out of position may be a sign that the coaching staff, namely AJ Ricker, believes he has the footwork and agility to excel at a position that inherently requires significantly more pass-blocking proficiency than anywhere else. However, McGovern did suffer a knee strain and thus will have less time to practice this new position, one requiring extensive footwork training even for experienced players.
McGovern is a natural mauler who excels at knocking men backward and is skilled at opening gaps, something we saw last year starting at South Carolina and continuing through the second half of last season. When he played at the right tackle earlier this spring, Mizzou scored its only offensive touchdown on a Russell Hansbrough 65-yard touchdown run through the gap McGovern opened.
The offensive line problems, primarily the pass-blocking issues, that plagued Mizzou through the first half of the 2014 season were mostly resolved when the Tigers became more heavily run oriented. Mizzou emphasized the center-guard tandem of Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern, and it worked rather well. Of course you trust the coaches to know what they're doing, but the decision deserves some scrutiny.